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What is a board?

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Definition of charity trustee board and how boards govern.

Every charity has a governing body (most often called a board) that takes overall responsibility for its work. The board is responsible for the governance of a charity - ensuring it is effectively and properly run and is meeting its overall purposes as set out in its governing document.

A board may not always be called a board: other names include a management committee, council, executive committee, board of trustees, board of governors or some other term. The name of the governing body is usually determined in its governing document.

The board consists of trustees who work together and take overall responsibility for the charity. Being a trustee is a formal role. Some charities may not use the term trustee but may use another term such as committee member or director: what matters is the role, not the title.

Although charities and boards differ greatly in size and structure, all trustees and all boards share some fundamental roles and responsibilities.

How does the board govern?

To govern a charity means to secure its long term direction, furthering its objects or purposes as set out in its governing document, ensure that it is effectively and properly run with legal and other obligations met, and be accountable to those with an interest or a 'stake' in the charity.

Most of the board’s work takes place at board meetings where trustees act collectively. Boards often concentrate on big issues at meetings, making key decisions, monitoring activities and then delegating day to day work to others – staff, volunteers, sub-committees or individual trustees.

In small charities, boards are likely to be involved in day to day issues as well as in governance issues. In these charities, trustees should still distinguish between when they are working on day to day issues and when they are working on governance issues, to help ensure the board is carrying out its overall responsibilities.

Individual trustees act and make decisions as part of the collective board. They are bound by any collective decision. They can only act on their own if they have been authorised to do so by the board.

Boards govern effectively by:

  • Focusing on their governance responsibilities
  • Being clear about who works on behalf of the charity to carry out its work - staff, volunteers and, in smaller charities, individual trustees - and maintain good relationships with them
  •  Ensuring the board itself operates effectively.

What are the responsibilities of the board?

  • Furthering the charity’s overall purpose, as set out in its governing document, and setting its direction and strategy – for example, by developing plans and strategies and monitoring progress.
  • Ensuring the work of the charity is effective, responsible and legal – for example, by the use of policies and procedures and systems for monitoring and evaluating the charity’s work.
  • Safeguarding finances, resources and property and ensuring they are used to further the charity’s purposes – for example, by insuring and documenting assets, maintaining financial systems, monitoring income and expenditure and ensuring the charity is financially sustainable or viable.
  • Being ‘accountable’ to those with an interest or stake in or who regulate the charity – for example, by preparing annual reports and accounts and consulting with stakeholders. (link to risk?)
  • Being clear about the people who carry out work on behalf of the charity – trustees, staff, volunteers –establishing and respecting boundaries between the governance role of the board and operational or day to day matters.
  • Ensuring the board operates effectively – for example, ensuring it receives the right reports and advice, by planning the recruitment and induction of trustees, providing trustees with support and training or carrying out reviews or appraisals of the board’s effectiveness.


NCVO is currently hosting an online eLearning course on the roles and duties of trustees. This interactive course lets you study at your own pace and can fit around your schedule and priorities.


Page last edited Dec 10, 2020

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